Pete Yorn (Columbia)
Grade: A
Pete Yorn is at his best when he's at his most ambitious.
Following a somewhat disappointing sophomore effort -- 2003's "Day I Forgot" -- Yorn reaches for the sky on his third disc, "Nightcrawler."
The singer-songwriter's 2001 debut, "musicforthemorningafter," demanded repeat listens and was one of that year's strongest debuts.
On "Day I Forgot," Yorn seemed to be wearing his influences on his sleeve, and the stripped-down approach failed to hit the mark as consistently as its predecessor.
He stretches his sound quite a bit on "Nightcrawler," offering shades of '60s pop, '80s Britpop, a few Springsteen-style touches and even a bit of bombast here and there.
Yorn's knack for injecting the most simple guitar riffs with subtle sonic touches lifts the songs a lot higher than they may have gone in lesser hands.
The opening trio of "Vampyre," "For Us" and "Undercover" showcases Yorn's knack for painfully catchy hooks and lifting, romantic choruses.
He slows things down here and there with a few sweet ballads, "The Man" and "Ice Age," and offers up the Petty-esque "Splendid Isolation" -- but most of the disc's 14 tracks center on driving retro alternative rock.
Yorn can stumble a bit -- the electropop of "Same Thing" seems a bit out of place -- but he rises to the occasion with undeniably strong tracks such as "Policies" and "How Do You Go On."
-- John Kosik, Associated Press
Jessica Simpson (Epic)
Grade: D
Now 26 years old, with her marriage and reality series both finished, Jessica Simpson is hoping to re-establish herself as a singer with her fifth album, "A Public Affair."
But instead of showcasing her overlooked talent, it only serves as a reminder of why we never cared about her as a singer in the first place.
Simpson has a strong voice, and unlike, say, Britney Spears, can make her vocals soar.
But unlike Spears, she doesn't have catchy songs to draw us in. Case in point: her first single, "A Public Affair."
It takes chunks of Madonna's "Holiday" and Diana Ross' "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" to cobble the song together, and it's still a frothy, fluffy mess that sounds like karaoke.
That effect permeates much of the album, especially since Simpson chooses a decidedly retro feel -- '80s covers like "You Spin Me Round [Like A Record]" and dated disco tracks -- for much of it.
Unlike Gwen Stefani, who managed to turn her '80s inspiration into an inspired, creative gem with "Love.Angel.Music.Baby," Simpson's tunes -- eight of which she co-wrote -- just sound like retreads. Vocally she also disappoints, choosing to pant and vamp her way through a song instead of really singing.
-- Nekesa Mumbi Moody, Associated Press
Stone Sour (Road Runner)
Grade: C
These Des Moines metalheads are the offshoot band for Slipknot's singer Corey Taylor and guitarist James Root.
But they prove again on their second album that their music is in many ways more impressive than that of the group that spawned them.
Stone Sour establishes its basic smash-and-grab style right from the get-go on "30/30-150" with its rivet-gun guitars.
But they cover a lot of moods here, from the surprisingly political title track ("We're more in danger than before you took power") to the Pink Floydish setup to "sillyworld."
Even the album's ballads, "Through Glass" and "Zzyzx Rd." are conveyed with notable ferocity and honesty.
-- David Hiltbrand, Philadelphia Inquirer
The Sadies (Yep Roc)
Grade: C
Some live albums make you feel like you had to be there to understand what all the fuss is about; others make you wish you were there because you know you missed something special.
The Sadies' "In Concert Volume One" is one of the latter.
Recorded by Steve Albini over two nights in Toronto, the 2-CD set includes guest appearances from Neko Case and Jon Langford (both have collaborated with the Sadies on their own albums) as well as Jon Spencer, Garth Hudson and numerous others.
But the Sadies don't get upstaged at their own party. Fronted by the omnivorous Good brothers, Dallas and Travis, the Canadian quartet moves enthusiastically from surf music to bluegrass to crunchy rock 'n' roll, from Syd Barrett to Roger Miller to the Mekons.
Here's hoping "Volume Two," when they get around to it, is just as Good.
-- Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer
J Dilla (BBE)
Grade: C
The name James "Dilla" Yancey stands for quirky sonic technique and ebullient composition within hip-hop, underground and over-ground.
His death in February won't change that rep, given the grand, moody soul found on this finale.
Lionized on the Roots' "Game Theory," Dilla -- as artist, the "Jay Dee" behind Slum Village, producer for countless rappers and singers -- used only the weirdest, choicest samples and the thickest keyboard riffs to create his cinematic noise.
His rhythms -- spacious, dotted by high-hats -- were akin to what you'd hear in house music.
Though production charges Common, D'Angelo (together on the graceful "So Far to Go") and Black Thought appear, it's all Dilla's show.
With snippets from Kubrick's sinister masterpiece behind him, Dilla produces a sort of uniquely breathy roboticism ("EMC2") and slow funk eroticism ("Won't Do") that makes you miss him even more.
-- A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer

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